Dreaming of Student-Debt Relief

Three protesters stand in front of the White House holding signs that read,
Photo: The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Behind the estimated more than $1.7 trillion in student-loan debt in the United States are many people who spent years making payments only to see the amount they owe appear to never budge — or actually increase. A payment and interest freeze on federal loans was extended repeatedly throughout the pandemic, and while a pause isn’t the same as the full elimination that the movement for student-debt cancellation calls for, it offered people a glimpse of what life could be like if their loan payments weren’t sucking up hundreds of extra dollars per month.

The freeze is set to end in June after more than three years, and the Supreme Court is preparing to hear cases that will decide whether some student-loan borrowers will have up to $20,000 in debt canceled. President Joe Biden’s debt-relief plan would eliminate $20,000 for borrowers who are Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for other federal borrowers as long as they earn less than $125,000. But GOP lawmakers and conservative groups have sought to block the program from the jump, and on Tuesday, the Court will hear two conservative-backed lawsuits that have kept Biden’s plan on ice.

The Cut spoke to eight borrowers who carry varying amounts of student debt in varying circumstances — from withdrawing from college because of disability, to parenting while in school, to taking out Parent PLUS Loans for their children. They shared, in their own words, how the payment pause has affected them and the difference student-loan forgiveness would make in their lives.

“I’ll have a little bit of extra money to start saving for my two boys.”

Marjorie, 28

I started college back in 2014. I was a young mom with no money and in need of food, diapers, baby formula, and housing. It was a challenging situation because I was debating internally on whether to get loans or get a job to pay for college and provide a better future for my son. Of course, I knew that being a mom, having a job, and being a college student was almost impossible and that my son needed my time and attention. Getting into debt was my only option.

I told myself that, once I graduated, I was going to be in a better situation, employed and earning money to pay all of my bills. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It’s not just the loans; it’s the rent, the food, the baby, the car — there’s so many other things. The economy is just getting difficult, and inflation is getting higher, including the cost of a college education.

When I applied for loan forgiveness, I was like, Okay, I’m hoping that this is going to come through. That will mean I’ll have a little bit of extra money to start saving for my two boys. I have a little one still taking formula; I have to work, which means that I have to pay for someone to take care of him. I’m overwhelmed thinking about my 11-year-old. How do I make it easier for him? I’m hopeful that, in the future, my two sons and all other children will not have to go into debt to have an education.

“Without our student-loan payments, we purchased our house.”

Sterling, 30, and Maggie, 30

Sterling: I had a little over $20,000 in debt coming out of undergrad, at first not paying much at all because of income-driven repayment. But as I started to make a little more money, those payments started to go up and probably topped out at about $200 a month before the initial freeze.

Maggie: I went to a public four-year university and I still ended up with over $27,000 in student-loan debt. I’ve been paying on it for almost a decade now, and I owe more than I did whenever I graduated. We’d probably be owing $800 a month, at this point, for both of us — that’s a very significant amount of money for where we live. Without our student-loan payments, we purchased our house during the pandemic; we paid off a car as well.

Sterling: I remember driving around listening to the radio and hearing multiple times, “Oh, the pause just got extended again.” Every time, it’s that weight lifted off your chest.

Maggie: Some of the pauses were like six weeks, eight weeks, and so it just felt like, Are we gonna have to start paying again? That is very hard to plan for. We’ve been married for a few years, and we don’t have kids. But when you’re into your 30s, you start thinking about, Do you want kids? Student-loan payments can definitely weigh on that if you’re trying to have a great financial standing before you bring a child into this world.

Sterling: You maybe vote for someone under the promise that the loans will be forgiven. It almost happens, and then it gets ripped right out from under you. It’s so disheartening. Twenty thousand dollars — that would have knocked mine out; that would have knocked out two-thirds to three-quarters of Maggie’s. That initial announcement, it was so freeing.

“I don’t have to feel bad that I got sick.”

Alexandra, 25

I ended up medically withdrawing from college sophomore year because I got sick. The payment pause has not impacted me at all because I’ve been on disability since 2018. I was on an income-based repayment plan, so I was already paying $0. There are arguments that say, “Well, disabled people have access to forgiveness,” but that’s such a burdensome process. Even getting approved for Social Security disability is inaccessible to so many, and with things like long COVID popping up, this is going to be a huge factor in a lot of people’s lives. I have the option to go through with forgiveness that’s available for people with disabilities that lasts a certain period of time, but it’s incredibly restrictive.

I have about $12,000 in debt, and as a Pell Grant recipient, pretty much all of that would be wiped out. It’s been stressful in my state, specifically. If loans were forgiven, there was a chance that we had to pay taxes on it; I didn’t owe anything, so that could have been a couple hundred in taxes suddenly shoved on me. But then the plan was stopped, and it was like, Okay, now there’s a chance for my state to make the taxes not a thing. Then it’s like, Wow, all of us got our hopes up.

So much of being chronically ill is being limited, and student loans just add to that in a way that says, “This isn’t a path that you can take. You don’t have this choice.” Having student debt go away, be forgiven … suddenly, I don’t have to feel bad that I got sick. I don’t have $12,000 staring at me saying, “Your life didn’t go how you planned, and that’s going to impact the future that you can create.” If forgiveness does go through, it opens up the possibility I might go back to school.

“I’ve been able to put aside almost $10,000 in a savings account.”

Aimee, 37

I graduated with $50,000 in debt. I have not missed a payment since 2009, and I currently have $51,000 in debt. The total principal of my nearly 20-year-old debt seems impossible to reduce as a result of multiple unfixed-interest rates across the loans and the fact that interest on student loans is compounded every single day. Every payment I make goes toward outstanding interest first, principal second, which is a formula for eternal debt, apparently.

I have followed all the rules, especially the ones for lower-income people like me: I have a higher income than my family before me. I’m the first in my family to go to college. But I just have this hole that never fills in, and it’s like I could tumble into it at any time. I’ve been kind of lucky that I haven’t been homeless at any point. I’ve always had people who house me, but it doesn’t take much to fall all the way backward into that hole.

The bulk of my debt is federal debt, and that amount is about $40,000. The remaining amount is private loans. Since payments were frozen in 2020 — except for the private payments, but I’m making much smaller contributions there — I’ve been able to put aside almost $10,000 in a savings account. I’ve never touched that amount in terms of savings in my entire life. I was able to pay off my car. I also paid off one loan, the smallest, teeniest private loan.

I’d like to make plans. The email itself didn’t even let me think that far. It was like, “Congratulations, Pell Grant recipient, $20,000 off for you. Unfortunately, the mean old Republicans are filing suit, and we don’t know when this payout will occur.” I’d like to be able to afford health insurance. I would like to consider buying a house, looking at my savings now as savings for a down payment. But I have no reason to believe that $20,000 is going to be any easier to pay off than the $40,000 was, right?

“Money I saved on my loan payment I ended up spending as rent money.”

Jo, 49, and Sam, 27

Jo: I was lucky enough that my grandfather paid for me to go to undergrad. My college tuition — which is now like $70,000 a year — with scholarship and everything was $11,000 a year, so a very different animal than it is now. When I went for my master’s, even that wasn’t too bad. So my debt is all paid off, but I have $110,000 in Parent PLUS Loans for three children. Due to the fact that they’ve been in college up until recently, I actually never paid any of the Parent PLUS Loans because then COVID hit.

Sam: I’m in another $40,000 from undergrad, separate from the Parent PLUS. When I got out of college, I made so little that income-based repayment for those never kicked in, but the PLUS loans kicked in six months after graduation, and I paid them. At this point, my mom will now be getting the bill for all three of our loans; my brothers never finished the degree. I’m the one who has the username and password. In retrospect, I really regret being in a position where my mom has all of this debt attached to her financially because it impacts her credit if I don’t pay it down. I don’t actually have any regret about getting higher education.

Jo: I work as a teacher, so I qualify for public-service loan forgiveness. You have to pay for ten years in order for them to be forgiven. But the Parent PLUS Loans don’t count for all these months that they haven’t had to get paid — that would have been three years out of the ten, which would have been a huge help. Teachers get very little love as it is right now.

Sam: The money back in my pocket from not paying my PLUS loans quite literally changed my life. Money I saved on my loan payment I ended up spending as rent money in fall 2021, the year I got freelancing off the ground and then got my job. I would only be in the position that I am in now because I didn’t have to pay my loans two years ago. Adding another $600 monthly payment to my life is gonna be really fucking brutal, if that has to happen.

“It’s allowed me to save and invest and really think about what the future could look like.”

Umme, 36

I have around $80,000 of student-loan debt between undergrad and grad school. I’m from an immigrant family who had moved to the States. It was deeply ingrained in me as a child that I needed to go to school and that would be the best way to be able to achieve the quote-unquote American dream. The student-loan debt has been like a cloud that’s hung over me. It’s really determined a lot of my life, from where I went to grad school to where I lived and which jobs I ended up doing.

The past couple of years of payment pauses have been life changing. It’s allowed me to save and invest and really think about what the future could look like. I’m having to deal with costly medication because I recently just got diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. If I, for any reason, lost my health care and had to pay thousands of dollars a month for that as well as my student-loan debt, I don’t know how I would live.

It’s become pretty clear that student-loan debt is a systemic issue. There are like 45 million of us who are burdened with student-loan debt, primarily people who are low income or communities of color. The only thing that’s given me resolve is that I refuse to pay my student-loan debt until they cancel all of it. I’m one of the student-debt strikers with the Debt Collective. I believe that this is a political problem; it has to have a political solution. To be on the cusp of it and to witness this level of political theater is really disappointing.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Dreaming of Student-Debt Relief